Zealotry and Academic Freedom; a Legal and Historical Perspective

Neil Hamilton
New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1995
402 pp., $24.95 hc

Richard E. Walton
University of Montana-Missoula

One who offers the public a review of a book three years past its copyright date had perhaps best begin with a word of explanation. I assumed this task in response to an enquiry from the editor of this journal, who noted an apparent contradiction between a theme of this book and a claim I made early in my "Notes on Academic Responsibility" (1). I had said that the concept of a right does not imply the existence of any responsibilities for the right-holder; rather, it is some other persons who have the necessary responsibilities or duties. Hamilton, on the other hand, speaks throughout the text of academic freedom's "correlative duties." He summarizes these as follows:

  1. at all times be accurate;
  2. exercise appropriate restraint; and
  3. show respect for the opinions of others. (269)

The contradiction is easily resolved. Hamilton derives his concept of academic freedom from the AAUP's 1915 and 1940 statements, especially the "1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure." These publications were (and are) intended to serve as guides to governing board members, administrators, faculty, and students in higher education. The idea has been that academic freedom be adopted as a contractual right, and this is just what has generally occurred. Hence, we find Hamilton saying such things as, "The liberty of intramural and extramural utterance was never unbridled. University employers granted freedom from lay interference on the condition that individual scholars and teachers would meet the correlative duties of professional competence and ethics" (231). Contractual rights ordinarily do bring duties to the right-holder, as I noted; moreover, I hold that certain aspects of social roles, while not explicitly contractual, are best understood on the contractual model. When one assumes a social role, one may acquire rights and duties associated with that role; these rights and duties may be enforced by the courts if the social role is sufficiently well recognized, as that of the professor is in the U.S.

It did not require my reading the entirety of Hamilton's large, dense book to satisfy myself on this point of apparent disagreement. Nonetheless, I did read all of it carefully, and as a result, I have come to see that this is a valuable book, one worth the considerable effort required to absorb it.

Yet the book has numerous flaws, most of which would have been avoided had Hamilton enjoyed the services of a good editor. The writing lacks polish, being marred by errors from misspellings ("Amhearst"), to sentences which do not parse, to outright grammatical blunders, some of which derive from the author's excessive concern to avoid any possible charges of gender bias. He is given to repetition: the book could be cut by 10% to 25% simply by eliminating unnecessary repetition of his claims. Finally, there is a matter of style. Hamilton appears unsure of the audience to which he wishes to appeal, and it may be most accurate to say that he does not write with any audience in mind at all. The book, after all, derives from his experiences as a victim of various PC attacks. Like any good scholar, his fundamental response to the situation was to try to understand what was happening to him. "This book," he tells us, "is the product of my self-education" (Preface xiii). As a consequence of its provenance, it is really three books in one: an historical study of academic persecution in the U.S.; a legal analysis of court decisions on academic freedom; and a manual for faculty concerned about academic freedom. The three sections of the book answer to these purposes, in that order. The book is presented generally in the style of the law text or law review article; for example, it is heavily footnoted, since legal argument frequently takes the form of the ad verecundiam (the text of chapter six of the book occupies twelve pages, to which are attached 74 endnotes in seven pages).The book, in short, is heavy weather sailing. We may hope that Hamilton will bring out a second edition, free from this one's shortcomings.

I believe the two strongest parts of the book are the first and the third. The middle section could have been greatly reduced and woven into the first section's account of attacks on academic freedom in the U.S. Here he argues that attacks on academic freedom by zealots have occurred at regular intervals since the emergence of the modern institution of higher education following the Civil War. There have been seven such periods of zealotry, he maintains, at intervals of about 15-20 years, each lasting about three to ten years. The thesis here is perhaps neater than the facts really permit, owing particularly to a certain lack of scrupulosity in Hamilton's use of the concept of zealotry. It does not seem to me appropriate, for example, to ascribe to zealotry dismissals for doctrinal reasons of faculty members at parochial institutions. On the other hand, the episodes of persecution that have occurred in this century certainly seem to have been spawned, more or less, by ideological zeal. This is undeniably the case with the last three: the anticommunist purges of the late Forties and early Fifties; the student protest actions of the mid to late Sixties and very early Seventies; and the activities driven by what Hamilton calls "the fundamentalist academic left" which began in the late Eighties.

If academic persecution is indeed episodic, as Hamilton argues, a comforting inference would seem available to one who falls victim to such persecution. The period will soon pass, and history is likely to produce vindication. Just this inference is made in the excellent eleventh chapter of the book, "Effective Responses by the Target of Zealotry." But at page 333 the author takes up the possibility that the current wave of zealotry, unlike previous ones, "may have substantial longevity," and he concludes the book with a chapter entitled, "The Wavering Flame of Academic Freedom." He offers some good reasons why this episode might be relatively long lived. The luxury of more than three years of experience beyond what Hamilton had when the book was written does not permit me to disagree. While the so-called "PC" furor has died down some, we still read of incidents like the attempt by the Drama Department at Arizona State University to deny tenure to Prof. Jared Sakren for teaching the works of a dead white male--Shakespeare.

Zealotry of any sort conflicts with the epistemology which underlies the modern idea of higher education and the basic mission of colleges and universities. About that Hamilton is entirely correct (2). A prolonged and deep incursion of zealotry must then have rather drastic consequences. My own view, at least in my more pessimistic moments, is that the ideology which gave rise to the PC phenomenon has taken up residence in American higher education for a long stay. The ultimate result will be to increase the gulf between the sciences, on the one hand, and the humanities and social sciences, on the other; more importantly, it will widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots among our colleges and universities, and so among their clients, the students. While the ideology first appeared at leading institutions, it will take root most firmly in the lesser ones, where it readily conspires with other conditions to diminish even further the quality of the education these institutions offer. The qualitative differences in the education provided by top rank schools as opposed to those in the middle and lower tiers is now largely a matter of degree. We may very well see it become a matter of kind: those persons fortunate enough to obtain degrees from institutions which shake themselves free from the PC ideology will have an education; other graduates will have only a degree.


  1. Richard E. Walton, "Notes on Academic Responsibility" The Montana Professor 8.1 (Winter 1998): 9-13.

  2. His description of that epistemology, on the other hand, rests too heavily on the work of Karl Popper. The reader would do better to consult John R. Searle's "Rationality and Realism, What is at Stake?" and its companion pieces by Richard Rorty, "Does Academic Freedom have Philosophical Presuppositions?" in Richard T. DeGeorge, Academic Freedom and Tenure: Ethical Issues (pp. 197-200, 176-196, respectively). I am indebted to George Dennison for calling this book to my attention.

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